Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Speaking English in Hong Kong

Many fulminate daily in the South China Morning Post about the poor standard of English instruction in Hong Kong. Many hearken back to a 'golden age' of English language teaching in the 1950s and 1960s; certainly I have found a large number of people in that age cohort that speak better English than their equivalents today.

But then, English instruction was not uniformly good throughout Hong Kong's history either, even in Victorian times when British power could be said to be at its apogee. Let me quote from Governor John Pope-Hennessy's comments on a Blue Book in 1880:
In the early years of this Colony, successive Secretaries of State impressed on Sir Henry Pottinger, Sir John Davis, and other Governors, the primary duty of encouraging schools where the Chinese boys could learn English. Some of my predecessors recognized the national importance of this, and directed English to be taught in every school supported by the Government. For a short time this was done. But on my first inspection of the Government schools, I found that the teaching of English had been given up in all of them, with one exception. n the principal Government School - the Central School, - which had been established for the special purpose of teaching English to the natives, I inspected two class rooms, containing one hundred and fifty boys, under three Chinese teachers, and I found that neither the teachers nor the pupils could speak a word of English. Soon after this, I requested the European Head Master of the school to examine all the pupils on the roll, and to report to the Government as to their capacity for speaking English. He reported that out of the 412 Chinese boys in attendance, 18 were able to speak English with considerable fluency, 58 spoke English with diffidence, and 336 could not be said to speak English at all.

Within the last few months, the first examination of this school by independent examiners was held, when they obtained results almost as unsatisfactory as those reported by the Head Master, Mr. Stewart, in 1878. They reported that "scarcely any of the Chinese boys produced in translation into English a single grammatical sentence."
And this was at a time when English and the use of it were incredibly important:
During the four years of my administration, many trials have taken place in the Supreme Court, criminal trials and civil cases, both tried by juries, but though the majority of the prisoners tried are Chinese, and a considerable quantity of the property disposed of by the verdicts of juries is Chinese property,- nevertheless, I do not remember in the whole course of those four years to have seen a Chinaman on a jury. The Ordinance under which juries are summoned, provides that no man can sit on a jury who has not a knowledge of English.
The power structures of the Colony, therefore, were inimical to greater Chinese penetration given their inability to speak English - and this was a subject to which Pope-Hennessy was more sensitive to than most. The Governor then seems to place the blame of this lack of English knowledge on the private sector:
In a letter written by the Inspector of schools to the Colonial Secretary in April 1880, a passage occurs which, perhaps, accounts for the defective state of English teaching in the Colony. The Inspector writes:-"I heard it once stated by the Head Master of the Central School, in the presence of His Excellency the Governor, that there are foreign merchants in the Colony who, in the interest of local foreign trade, desire that their Chinese clerks should not be taught any more English than is required to enable them to copy an English letter readily and neatly, and who discourage, therefore, any attempt to give Chinese youths a thorough command of the English language."
This was not a passage that alumni of Queen's College, the successor institution to the Government Central School (pictured above a couple decades later, in 1903), would relish. Particularly this last passage:
Her Majesty's Government are, however, aware that within the last two of three years the practice of teaching English has been restored in the smaller Government schools; and, in course of time, I hope to render the Central School more useful in this respect.
So rest assured then, that the inability of the larger part of the Hong Kong Chinese to speak English properly has not just been a recent phenomenon. However, whereas they were thereby disadvantaged in the power structures and in conducting business within the Colony, today, they are disadvantaged in the global economy instead - a troubling aspect of a city with global pretensions as Asia's World City.


waisikgwai said...

As a student of Cantonese, I prefer that HK people talk to me in Chinese rather than English. I may be the exception, but it doesn't bother me if less English is being spoken in HK. Anything that makes it easier to learn Cantonese is a plus for me. Besides, 入 村 隨 俗 "when in Rome, do as Romans do."

Eric L. said...

I don't see how poor English is such a severe disadvantage for Hong Kong in the global economy, or that excellent English would be such an advantage. What I do see is a power elite who have pounded into everyone's heads the idea that English ability is the Most Important Thing. Globalization certainly helps to magnify the sound of this drumbeat, but it's the elites themselves who are beating the drum, not the British (at least not anymore)

Then those same elites, having planted in everyone's minds the idea that English ability is a measure of your intelligence, use their ridiculous amounts of money to game this measure --- by sending their kids to international schools so that they learn their English early and accentlessly. Then their kids can focus on learning actual skills in their teenage and adult years, while everyone else is playing the "I Must Improve My English" game and struggling through English-medium business & computer & medicine textbooks in university because the Chinese-medium textbooks are seen as inferior.

Of course, the elites want to protect their ability to transmit their privilege down through the generations, and English is the mechanism by which they do it; this means restricting the supply of fluent bilinguals, rather than expanding it indefinitely as in Singapore or Malaysia or Philippines or India.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Waisikgwai, that is great that you are learning Cantonese, because I think it fundamentally changes (and obviously improves) the experience you will have in Hong Kong. People may make fun of you a bit at first, but once you get past that stage and can speak in serviceable tones, people genuinely appreciate being spoken to in their own language - it really is a major novelty, despite this being such a big city.

Eric, I think Mandarin is very important too. But it is also important to realize that Hong Kong is a service hub - a middleman economy. For now, while China is the production powerhouse of the world, it is the West, particularly America, that drives the consumption of the world, and determines how mponey is spent. As long as that is the case, the people of Hong Kong would be much better served to learn English. There is a slight advantage that they have at the moment over mainland cities, but if they insist on prioritizing Cantonese, and then Mandarin, and then English last, then they will lose that edge.

And let's face it, English is the lingua franca of the global economy. It's how you communicate with people from all over the world (including on this blog). I think to deny that and say it is some sort of elite movement only is missing the point.